Activation — Our Third Executive Function
Welcome back to the ADHD: Bitesize Guide to our Six Executive Functions!
Last time we took a look at Action, the second of our executive functions.
We examined how our actions are affected by ADHD, and how those impairments can affect our lives. We also looked at ways we can improve our ability to regulate our actions and control our impulses. If you missed it, you can read it here!
This time we're looking at Activation—the third of our six executive functions.
Activation includes organising and planning tasks, understanding and obtaining the materials needed to complete tasks, prioritising tasks and the stages within them, getting started on tasks, and estimating time.
Those of us with ADHD tend to have trouble planning effectively, difficulty knowing how and when to prioritise tasks, issues getting started, and a poor sense of time.
The result can manifest itself in the following ways:
Doing the things that are currently in front of us, regardless of their importance.
Missing key steps in a task, or doing them in the wrong order.
Finding that we're always running late, even when we plan to leave on time.
Getting started on something, only to realise we're missing key items or tools.
Setting goals for ourselves that are way harder to achieve than we thought.
Knowing that something needs doing, and just not being able to start.
Saying "I'll be there in five minutes!" and finally arriving nearly an hour later.
Putting off doing something, despite it being increasingly urgent.
Do any of those sound familiar to you?
The Trouble With our Activation
Our lives are affected in several different ways by these Activation impairments.
We're more likely to be constantly running late. We miss important appointments, get into trouble at school or work for frequent lateness, and our relationships can suffer when we're always keeping our friends waiting.
Rather than prioritising tasks based on their importance, we often do the thing that's right in front of us, or the task that's being demanded of us by someone else in that moment. We often find ourselves neglecting important things despite being busy.
We're also very prone to procrastination. Often, we will delay starting something—even something we know is important—until the last minute, when it's suddenly an emergency.
The inability to prioritise effectively, combined with our tendency to procrastinate, can negatively affect our school and work performance, cause chaos at home, and create arguments in relationships over things not getting done.
Why Do We Have Trouble With Activation?
Scientists are starting to understand that the reason behind our chronic procrastination is this impairment in our executive functions.
Because it takes so much more mental effort for us to organise, plan, prioritise, motivate, and make decisions, it can easily overwhelm our brains and cause us to shut down. We then avoid starting the task because it's just too much.
This isn't always obvious to the people around us. They may think we have terrible time management, that we aren't taking our responsibilities seriously, the task isn't important to us, or we're being lazy. They may try to motivate us by nagging, punishment, or telling us to try harder.
But this is an executive function issue—a result of a chemical imbalance in our brains—not a time management issue nor a personality flaw. No amount of nagging or punishment will fix it—in fact, it makes us believe we simply aren't trying hard enough.
So we try harder and harder, perhaps achieving short-term success in overcoming procrastination but at the cost of our mental health. This also "proves" to ourselves and others that we just weren't trying hard enough before, so pushing ourselves too hard becomes the new bare minimum.
By addressing the underlying cause of ADHD, we can undo this negative spiral of failure, shame and overwork. With support and strategies, procrastination can be effectively addressed, allowing us to reach the goals we set for ourselves without burning out.
What Can We Do About It?
There are many areas that are impacted by the impairments in our Activation executive function. Thankfully, there are things you can try to help improve each of them.
Get a sense of your day. When you arrive at school, at work, or even right when you wake up, make a few quick notes about your most important tasks and what you want to accomplish by the end of the day.
Schedule things for later. As your day progresses, new things will show up on your radar. When they do, consider if they are more important than whatever you're doing at that moment. If they aren't, schedule them for later by writing them down.
Learn to say "no". Our priorities can change as a result of other people; a request for help from a colleague, or a friend calling to chat. If we're working on something important, we have to learn to say "no". It's better to be honest about how much you can take on than it is to over-promise and under-deliver.
Make a good plan. Planning in advance can be a great way to set appropriate goals and targets for ourselves. When you plan, put limits on what you can and cannot do well in advance, and set SMART goals — Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound—it takes all sorts of limiting factors out of the picture.
Use trackers, not to-do lists. The ADHD brain finds it challenging to organise information and process it into action towards a predetermined goal. Trackers get the plan out of our heads and onto paper in a format that tells us exactly what needs doing and when, as well as the importance of each task.
Cheat your appointment times. If you have to be somewhere at 5:00pm but you are usually 15 minutes late for everything, set a reminder for 15 minutes earlier than you think you need to. Or, set your clocks back 15 minutes!
Use a stopwatch when you begin a common task, such as getting ready for school, and stop the timer when the task is finished. Soon you'll have a "time list" of things you routinely do and you'll have a much better idea of how long things really take, instead of how long you think they'll take.
Have an accountability partner. If you tend to put things off, recruit a friend, teacher, parent, or colleague to help keep you accountable. Ask them if they wouldn't mind just checking in on you at particular intervals during the task. You can return the favour for them, too!
Set reminders. Ten minutes before something that's time-sensitive, such as a meeting or class change, set an alarm so that you have time to finish what you're doing and refocus. Maybe set a second one for two minutes before, in case you get sucked back in!
Break it down. Sometimes we don't get started on something because the task seems overwhelming. You can break it into stages and just do the first step before taking a break for a few minutes. Often once you've started, you'll keep going for a lot longer than you thought.
Build in rewards. Incentivise tasks by having a reward for when you've finished. For a big task, have small rewards for completing stages, too.
Make it fun. A boring task won't stimulate the ADHD brain enough for it to get started. But you can make it more interesting. Try creating a competition with yourself or others; how many items can you tidy away in ten minutes? If you have a lot of housework to do, put on a favourite album and sing or dance along while you work.
Warm up. It's difficult for the ADHD brain to shift gears from one activity to another, which can make it hard to get started. A warm-up routine can help get you in the right mindset. Start with something simple and pleasant (a cup of tea, for example), include some physical movement to help stimulate the brain (such as stretches), and do it exactly the same way each time to create a strong association between the actions and the task.
Stay on top of chores. Use your Bullet Journal to create a housework chart, dividing all the tasks so you don't get overwhelmed when suddenly it all needs doing at once. Designate a block of time every day just for housework.
Create an "important stuff" box. Use a cardboard box the the lid cut off. Decorate and label it with all the important items you need to take whenever you leave the house, then keep those items in there. Put it by the front door.
Delegate, outsource, or automate chores. Divide up the chores so you aren't the only person in the house doing them. If you live alone, or if chores are still too much, consider hiring a cleaner or doing your food shopping online for delivery. Automate things such as bill payments.
Make a "go bag" the night before. The evening before school or work, pack your bag with all the items you need for the following day. Lay out your clothes the night before, too. That way, there will be no rushing around looking for items when you're meant to leave.
Ask for lists. Ask your teacher or boss for full lists of items needed for homework or work projects. That way, you will go home with all the things you need to complete your work.
Keep a notebook handy for the unexpected. For example, you're told of a timetable change, a special event, or the need to bring a different P.E. kit to normal. You won't be wondering later what it was you needed to remember.
Create a desk diagram. Draw out how your desk should look, organised just how you want it. For the first and last ten minutes of the day, make sure your desk looks like the diagram. This way, your workspace won't get overwhelmed with clutter and you'll be able to easily find what you need to get things done.
The harmful results that can often occur as a result of our impaired Activation executive function can be mitigated or avoided altogether with support. Options include professional therapy, prescription medication, ADHD-focused life coaching, and self-help strategies.
Join us next time when we take a look at Focus—our fourth executive function. Learn why we often have trouble with focusing, sustaining and shifting our attention, the ways that affects us, and powerful solutions to help. See you there!